32. Thiago Maia
Born in Boa Vista, in northwest Brazil, Thiago Maia started playing football for Extremo Norte. However in 2010, aged 13, word of his talent spread through the nation like wildfire. He moved to São Paulo to play for São Caetano’s youth categories. and it wasn’t long before Brazil’s big sides took notice. A year later, he signed for Santos FC, where he would begin his development at one of the world’s most prestigious footballing academies.
Impressive performances with Santos’ youth teams saw his reputation rise, as Maia became one of the most promising teenage midfielders in Brazil. Already training with the Santos first team at 16, he was called up to represent the Brazilian Under-17 side in 2013, and it wasn’t long before then-manager Enderson Moreira began seriously considering giving him his first start.
October 25, 2014 will be fondly remembered by Madridistas for their 3-1 drubbing of FC Barcelona, but for fans of a different white-and-black team, it has another memorable significance: Thiago Maia’s first team debut against Chapecoense. Throughout 2015, Maia continued to shine for both club and country, playing 37 times for Santos and Brazil’s U20 on 8 occasions, striking up an impressive midfield pairing with ex-Sevilla international Renato. 2016 saw Thiago Maia’s game reach new heights, with the Santástico product earning a spot in the Campeonato Paulista Team of the Year, as Santos were once again crowned champions of the competition.
By the summer of 2016, he was named in Brazil’s Olympics squad, a side largely composed of U23 players, which won the Gold medal on home soil. Maia struggled in the Olympics; after picking up two points and two yellows from the first two games, he would be limited to just one substitute appearance for the rest of the tournament.
Capable of playing numerous roles and often compared to Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal, Thiago Maia epitomizes the phrase ‘complete midfielder.’ Blessed with power, strength, technique, and an excellent understanding of the game, he is equally capable of sitting in front of the back four as a more defensive ‘destroyer,’ breaking up play, or perhaps his most suited role, as a box-to-box midfielder, a position which uses his stamina and physical attributes to greatest effect.
With an average of 2.7 interceptions per game, Maia’s physical traits will be extremely useful when confronting a more physical approach in Ligue 1. Another impressive aspect of Thiago’s game is his ability to look comfortable and retain the ball under pressure, using his physique and balance effectively. With less time and space that he is accustomed to in South America, this side of his game should be tested and become even more apparent in Europe.
The weakest aspect of Maia’s game is perhaps that he doesn’t contribute enough offensively, having scored just four times for Santos over the course of three seasons. In 2016, Thiago Maia completed 1,688 passes (13th highest in the Brazilian league) with an 86.7 % success rate. But, as his box-to-box nature demonstrates, he was equally impressive defensively, with the 5th most attempted tackles (131) & 8th most successful tackles (97) in the league.
It came as quite a surprise to those who had been following Thiago Maia when word of a 14 million euro move to French side Lille was announced as imminent. Considering the fact that the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Chelsea had shown to be extremely interested in the player, this was an unexpected, yet mature move. This career choice could prove to be an excellent move on the 20-year-old’s part.
This transfer will allow Motta to adapt to European football without the spotlight and expectations that a more-established club would bring. Thiago will be able to flourish learning alongside highly respected new Lille manager Marcelo Bielsa, who seems to be building a young, adventurous side in northern France. Bielsa’s rather gung-ho brand of football, known for its quick transitions and intense workload, requires exceptional physical qualities, understanding of the game and those around you, all qualities that Maia has proven to have in abundance. This is an opportunity Maia should relish, given the chance to showcase his talent and take his game to the next level under a manager so revered among his contemporaries.
However, his first two months in Europe has gotten off to an extremely bumpy start. After making his debut in a five-minute cameo performance in the season opener, a 3-0 victory at home to Nantes, Maia has started all four games since, picking up just 2 points. Against Girondins de Bordeaux, Bielsa experimented with the Brazilian at LWB, an unnatural position for him. The Argentine’s decision backfired, and Maia was sent off after just 32 minutes after committing a second bookable offence. He returned to Lille’s XI after suspension, in a 4-0 loss against defending champions AS Monaco. Next up? A visit to Amiens, who, as things stand, could be fighting Lille in a relegation battle by the end of the season.
Looking forward to the new year, Thiago Maia should look to cement his place in Lille’s XI as he continues to adapt to the rigors of European football. With the 2018 World Cup around the corner, Maia’s incentives to bolster his credentials and show Brazil coach Tite what he’s capable of in France are as good as any. Lille should provide an excellent grounding for European experience and consistent game time, which is vital in the development of a player his age. It is clear to many who have followed the player’s progress through Brazil’s youth ranks that Lille will likely only be a stepping stone towards bigger and better things. Arguably the best talent to come through the ranks at Santos’ famous footballing academy since a certain Neymar Jr., the boy will be desperate to make an impression to a wider more critical audience. If he succeeds, don’t be surprised if Neymar’s current employers come calling for his services.
By: Cameron Maher/@CamMaher95